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Courting Calamity

"This was where they met. And where he saved her. And somehow, across a century and a half, he’d saved me, too. And goddamn if I was ever going to need someone to save me again.”

Chapter 5: Piedmont, Wyoming

The first cops on the scene were something of cowboys, themselves. Their hats weren’t quite Stetsons and their guns weren’t quite Colts but they had this air about them. This way of talking to Scott and me that was so different from any cop I’ve ever talked to before.

They separated us for a while but let us sit in the back of their patrol cars with the heat on as the world outside got dark and cold as the dark side of the Moon. The Devil’s Gate was lost in this outer-space blackness I’ve never seen before. Even the fence at the far end of the overlook parking lot was swallowed up by all that black. Just those blue and white police lights lit up the world—the shattered pickup, my frozen piece-of-shit Honda, and the pools of blood left behind by that bartender and his asshole friend, now shining and icy black. Ambulances had long since carried off those monsters.

I tried to pick out any stars in the sky but couldn’t. Not from inside the patrol car, anyway. There wasn’t a solitary sign of life anywhere on the horizon, and hardly a moon, but those blue flashing lights were enough to drown out the sky.

A medic had tended my throat and ribs—which, mercifully, weren’t broke. And the cops offered me a hotel room down the highway some and I guess I told them that was okay. However it happened, I ended up riding for close to an hour with some old cop, “Good” on his badge like that should put me at ease. His beard lit up in the dashboard light giving him some kind of a blue chin halo and his eyes were squinting pits, even in the dark. But he was nice enough—after all the questions about what happened, anyway—and, when I needed, he stopped off at a truck stop so I could piss.

In the hard light of that truck stop toilet, I was a rough damn sight. There was this hateful and jagged red near all around my throat, thicker and more purple across my windpipe. I looked like some guillotined wench stitched back together. Or a Frankenstein’s monster, maybe. And when I lifted my shirt, I was all purple and red and black, from bellybutton to my tits. That asshole had worked a number on me. And in just a few seconds, at that.

I barely recognized myself. But in that moment, beaten all to hell in some frozen truck stop, I wasn’t even sure if that was a bad thing. I fingered the fringes of the hole in my jeans pocket—a hole stopped up by a Wyoming Highway Patrol tee shirt I’d jammed down my jeans and cinched at the waist under my belt—and didn’t know how to feel about what happened. Grateful? Relieved?

Fucking terrified? All that blood and those fucking monsters were still alive.

I came out and saw Officer Good leaning against the big windows facing the parking lot, his breath and a cup of coffee steaming up the cold, cold glass. He seemed out of place in that tacky truck stop, his cowboy posture and Wild West machismo at odds with the pornographic hats and camouflage “vegun” tee shirts on display around him. I walked up to him and he held a second cup of coffee out to me, tipping his hat all gentlemanly and shit, too, as he did.

I huddled up under my cape and sipped the coffee.

“Quite a thing, a little girl like you taking down those two boys all by your lonesome,” he said.

I didn’t say anything. I was exhausted and bruised and weary of retelling my tale of the confrontation at the overlook. Sure as hell wasn’t about to go into the magic alien disc that dropped that bartender and his goon, either.

That cop watched me for a while, then told me the officer who went with those thugs back to the hospital in Cheyenne finally got them talking. That the bartender was furious. Kept raging that I had something that belonged to his family. Something owed to them, he claimed—though without suggesting just how. Officer Good asked if I knew what any of that meant. I just shook my head.

“There’s lots of legends in these parts,” he told me in this fantastic Western drawl right out of some Clint Eastwood flick. “And ain’t all of them what you might call traditional cowboys and Indians tales.”

I nodded but didn’t offer anything. Last I needed that night—or that morning, I guess it’d become—was someone else coming after me.

That old cop, though, he just nodded out toward the dark. Past some idling big rig and on toward the lightening horizon. “I grew up around here,” he told me. “Beyond Green River, on toward Utah. All the kids knew the stories of the green cowboy. Used to play at it when I was little. Used to pretend the girls we fancied were that spitfire Calamity Jane on the prod with us. My boys did, too. Used their lightsabers and nerf guns to fight off Indians and robots and villains. Fighting them Piedmont Boones.”

I tried to figure what this old lawman was hunting at. Those deep, wrinkled eyes of his were so grooved, like puckered lips from years of looking into that high plains' sun. And his mouth was fixed straight, like he hadn’t smiled since those boys of his grew and were gone.

“I told you, that bartender said his name was Crown,” I said. “Not Boone.”

Officer Good just nodded. “Wyoming is a big small place, ma'am. Ain’t never been too many folks around here what don’t relate to each other. Crowns and Boones, included.”

He took a long draw from his own streaming coffee, sighing a great big fan of condensation onto the glass with the heat of it. “Grudges can last a long time in such a place.”

I watched the morning light start across the ice outside.

The cop put his coffee down and smiled. “But I sure am a sight pleased to hear those stories wasn’t all horseshit.”

“What?” I asked him, surprised at the turn.

“Miss Hickok, I’m sorry for your troubles, but I’m right glad you came home.”

I saw Scott sliding across the parking lot in Momma’s crappy car. I couldn’t see him well through the windshield but he looked tired. And bloody.

That old cop reached into his coat pocket.

“You decide you want to keep on, I’m sure my boys remember those stories I was telling about.” He pushed a business card into my hand. “Them Boones wasn’t the only family knew Calamity Jane as a girl. Or so my gramma used to tell.”

And with just a nod for a farewell, he stepped out into the coldest air I ever felt.

The card read: “Adam Good. Stillwater fishing. Piedmont, Wyoming.”

I hustled through the cold and dove into the passenger seat of the Honda. Scott hugged me awkwardly across the armrest and we stayed like that for a little while, him wincing a little from bruises or worse I couldn’t see. They’d interrogated him quite a bit more than me, it seems. But at some point in this early morning, Officer Good called them off and Scott was sent to find his way to me. Turns out whatever that alien disc did to those men wasn’t fatal—though it might’ve robbed them of their hearing for the rest of their miserable lives—and there wasn’t nothing we’d done that wasn’t self-defense in the eyes of the Wyoming Highway Patrol. God bless the West, huh? Winning a stand-off still measured a better part of justice.

Scott held my hand and told me how sorry he was. For not believing me. For not believing in me. He wanted to see the disc and we turned it over in our fumbling hands for a while. The lightening sky outside, the fluorescents of that truck stop, and the runners from a handful of big rigs, too, bouncing off those facets and curves. And I kissed him. No more waiting for him to muscle up the courage. I’d almost been killed in a fucking parking lot, a hundred miles from nowhere. Was too little time in life for waiting.

He started to turn the car east. Toward home. Toward the past.

I corrected him.

The sun rose behind us and the world turned all the colder and whiter and icier as we pressed on west. And rolling down that highway, all white without even a tint of black asphalt showing through, was one of the scariest things I’ve done. And not because of the icy conditions. But because going home was sensible and safe. I’m glad Scott was behind the wheel and that he didn’t argue with me about it. Factories the size of cities and tunnels cut through mesas and cliffs that dwarfed the odd roadside Holiday Inn punched right out of the whiteness like pencils stabbed up through a sheet of paper. And we pushed on, farther from home and more into the strange.

But big as Wyoming is, we crossed half the state in what felt like very little time. It was big and small, like Officer Good said. And right then, I felt it. We traveled so fast and passed through so much emptiness and the horizon was always so very far.

We didn’t talk very much about what happened the night before but I know we were both thinking about it. Scott had a raw and crusty scar across his nose and cheek. And I caught him checking my marks. But even when we’d looked at that disc, together, we didn’t speak of it. Or of those men who came after us and how brutal it’d been. Already it was fading into something that had just happened. Like losing Momma. Or Gram. Or leaving Nashville. It just was and it was behind us and all that was left was moving on.

The first time we tried to pull off the highway, our bumper ground into a foot of snow and we stopped quick as we could, afraid we’d be stranded if too much of that powder got under the car. The second time we pulled off, a truck must’ve gone the way before us because, snowy as the road was, our little import could clear the drifts and grip the tracks better than on that icy interstate.

We snaked away from the highway down a road we could barely make out, across a cattle gate and along a frozen creek, and into land untouched. In the distance, low mountains rolled under a clear sky. Utah, perhaps. And up close, more rabbits and weird deer and magpies than I’d ever seen ran and bounded and flew. And stopped to watch us.

We moved barely faster than at idle but it wasn’t long until the old charcoal kilns and the ghost-town ruins of Piedmont stood out of the snow ahead of us.

From the very beginning—since that night when I finished pouring over that transcript in my bed—this was where I wanted to be most of all. Oh sure, I wanted a sign of Jane and her Green Man and I looked for and found them in Casper and at Independence Rock. But this was where it all started. Where Jane’s boss and the Boone family’s rivalry came to a head, where the Green Man and Jane first joined guns, and where they first fought together. Fought a battle that kept on until last night, in a parking lot overlooking The Devils Gate. And just like Jane and her Green Man, there we laid low our enemies.

Scott and I sunk knee-deep into the snow as we wandered among those ancient ovens. The kilns were just like Jane described them in her journal. House-sized domes blackened on the inside from careers spent cooking up fuel for the railroads. And three of them stood tall and perfect, like you could gather up some wood and fire them up, today. But a fourth stood shattered. Like a bit of eggshell jammed up through the earth, curved and broken and remembering a violence that took place long ago. I stood in the shadow of that shattered kiln and looked across the way at what was left of the old town. Jane and her Green Men blew it all up in the summer of 1867. And what that explosion must’ve been to decimate however many other kilns stood back then, and that town so far off.

Scott stood still as a statue. Not even a chatter in his teeth. He said something quiet about us finally being here. About us finally being so far down the road. Bruised and torn and all, I smiled at that. Uncomfortable and tired and cold as hell, I smiled.

I walked up and laid hands on one of those kilns. Being here didn’t prove Jane or her Green Man were real. I was beyond that. I didn’t need proof more than what happened last night. And just like that, I felt the disc’s warmth in my pocket—my other pocket. But I liked the feel of my hands on these stones. Knowing she and her alien fought her. Killed here.

We wandered among the ghost town, then. What was left of it. Nails sticking out through boards dehydrated by a hundred years up in this desert, snow drifting down through roofs fallen in or emaciated by the cold and time. One of these ruins might’ve been Harthra’s ranch—the house Jane lived in until she met the Green Man. One of them might’ve been the barn where he kept his flying engine. That spaceship the Green Man was so obsessed with. And one was certainly the saloon where they came face to face with the Boones. Or even the general store owned by a man named Good.

Among the sagebrush and the timbers, the snow was sometimes waist deep. But dry. I even dropped Gram’s old book, once, and it cut a perfect rectangle down through the snow as it fell. And when I plunged my hands down into the snow, that old leather book came up dry.

And I stopped for a bit, there. That book cradled in my arms, those dry skeleton houses all around me, and realized I was standing on the main street of a town almost forgotten. But not. A town where legends once walked. Where Martha Jane Canary once hid herself to work among men on the rail, courted with Tom Somers, and where she bickered over killing a man with a green alien gunslinger. And it was in one of those more distant ruins where they first met. Where she was at her most vulnerable and most in need of rescue. And from which she emerged never needing rescue again.

I leaned against the frame of one of those ghost-town haunts and opened up Gram’s book. And Jane’s words spoke to me. Not from the disc or from any vision. But from her lips, put to paper by some newsman, and kept safe from woman to woman down the line to me.

Goddamn! Hurt something awful. The barn spun and I’ve got some weak recollection of my body flopping all around like a fish, whether from my own jerking or from Jimmy’s manhandling, I don’t rightly know. But was blood in my mouth, all the same. My blood. And as my wits come back, I felt Jimmy pulling at my belt, wrestling them dungarees over my hips. Boy, that’s a terror you’ll just never know. No man will. And no girl should. Turns my stomach even today, God knows how long on, to think on Jimmy Burns and how close he come to it.
And that’s when I saw him. The Green Man, I mean. My eyes was all foggy and tear-soaked but I could still make out his tall, slender figure just fine in that open barn doorway. His long arm holding Walker’s pudgy body two full feet off the dirt. Was a right beautiful thing.

The sky had whitened and it was hard to tell the up from the down. But this was where they met. And where he saved her. And somehow, across a century and a half, he’d saved me, too. And goddamn if I was ever going to need someone to save me again.

Right then, a pickup cruised down the snowy trail through the middle of Piedmont, its windows down. And a man not much older than me leaned out, asking if we were ok. Said we were on his land but that his dad told him we might be coming.

I held the disc in my pocket and told him we were fine even while Scott stood there and said nothing. And the man in the truck laughed and pointed at Momma’s piece-of-shit car. “Well, be careful and don’t get stuck out here in your little buggy.”

I didn’t know how to tell him, that piece-of-shit was a time machine. And that it always had been.